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Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Spirited Away (2001)

Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Stars: Rumi Hiragi and Miyu Irino
I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

By the time I watched Princess Mononoke for this project back in 2006, I'd seen a sum total of one Hayao Miyazaki movie: a dubbed full screen version of Kiki's Delivery Service. A couple of weeks later when I caught up with this one, I'd seen almost all of them, just short of his earliest (The Castle of Cagliostro) and his latest (Howl's Moving Castle). Now, the only one I still haven't seen is the new latest, Ponyo, which was released in 2008 to the usual acclaim, because once you've seen one Miyazaki you just have to see more. He serves as writer, director and lead artist on his films and is so far from prolific, with only ten films to his credit as director in over thirty years. Fortunately he works for Studio Ghibli, which he co-founded, and so is relatively free to work on whatever he wants, at whatever speed suits him. After Princess Mononoke, he went in to temporary retirement but, luckily for us, he returned to work to make his masterpiece.

Miyazaki is sometimes described as 'the Japanese Walt Disney', but the accolade is misleading because his greatest achievements are very different from Disney's. Walt Disney succeeded in making animation massively popular, with icons like Mickey Mouse, and to make animation at a feature length viable, with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1938, initially dubbed 'Disney's Folly' but soon to become the highest grossing film of the year which won him a special honorary Academy Award: one Oscar with seven miniature companions. An important Oscar is one of the few things that these two filmmakers share, as Spirited Away was the first Japanese anime to win at the Academy Awards, even though anime predates them by a full decade. In 1938, Miyazaki hadn't even been born and so many of the greatest innovations in the industry predate him, with Osamu Tezuka being a better fit for the description of a Japanese Walt Disney.

What Miyazaki achieved is to elevate the art of animation to a whole new level. Working within the most animation friendly country in the world, one whose written language is even comprised of pictures, he brought depth and maturity to the medium that is startling for the deceptive ease by which he achieved it. Inspired by western writers of children's fiction like Rosemary Sutcliffe, Ursula Le Guin and Eleanor Farjeon, he crafts his stories less as movie scripts and more as real works of literature, without descending, as Disney tended to do, to clichéd heroes and villains and hackneyed fairy tale plots. His characters have grand adventures that are exciting to watch, but they also grow through the experiences that unfold, learning about who they are, what flaws they have and how they relate to the world around them. There are distinguishable themes to Miyazaki's work that resonate: feminism, pacifism and environmentalism, but he never preaches.

Because Miyazaki's movies are all about growth and young children at the point of learning about life are perfect as lead characters, the lead character here, as usual, is a young girl, ten years old and far from happy about the fact that she and her family are moving house. As her parents get lost on the way to their new home, young Chihiro just bemoans her fate and whines a lot. There are hints at the magic ahead, in the form of tiny inviting shrines that Chihiro sees out of the car windows, but she's too happy being unhappy to pay much attention. Soon they run out of road and find themselves in front of a tunnel blocked by yet another stone shrine, so they leave the car behind and walk through the tunnel to discover a deserted theme park full of restaurants. It's empty of people but is at least full of food, all hot, steaming and inviting, so her parents tuck in with the intention of paying the proprietors when they appear.

While Chihiro's parents apparently fall under the spell of this theme park and fail to acknowledge anything strange about it, she does and so wanders around on her own to explore. Fortunately she discovers the androgynous young sorcerer, Master Haku, who feeds her a red pill to stop her from disappearing. She's already fading away because as we all know, this place is not what it seems and it's not a place for humans. It's when night falls that the theme park comes truly alive though that is hardly the right word, given the characters we're about to be introduced to. Her parents turn into pigs, the visitors are huge shadowy figures rather than people and the tunnel becomes submerged, turning into a wide river. A paddle steamer brings new guests, leaving the boat as Japanese masks and stepping onto land as varied kami or spirits. You just can't go wrong with kami and if you haven't been introduced to the concept, this is the perfect place to start.
To suggest that this world is fantastic is an understatement but it's vibrant and engaging. Haku may be a young sorcerer with a number of powerful secrets, but he still works at a bathhouse, the central location for most of the film and, as we soon discover, it's a bathhouse where eight million gods can rest their weary bones. This is the safest place for Chihiro though it's still hardly a place for a ten year old girl, especially as humans are close to taboo in this world. Haku gives her directions to the boiler room, asking that she insist that Kamaji put her to work. If she doesn't work, Yubaba, the sorceress in charge of the bathhouse, will turn her into an animal too. And off he goes. You can imagine what a bundle of nerves young Chihiro must be in at this point, her world having been turned into a nightmarish whirlwind where every glance shows her something else weird and wonderful. This is a deluge of imagination and it's only just beginning.

Just as Chihiro has Haku to guide her, at least a little, we put ourselves in the hands of Miyazaki. There are many reasons why his introduction on the Disney-distributed DVD by his friend John Lasseter, chief creative officer at Pixar and now Disney, is so appropriate. While he is obviously uncomfortable in front of a camera, Lasseter puts him there for a brief moment and simply says, 'Hayao Miyazaki, the world. The world, Miyazaki-san.' This resonates with me, not only because he was almost unknown in the west until the release of Princess Mononoke, his genius known only to a select few of the initiated, me excluded. I discovered anime in 1991 with Akira's UK release and I became an instant fan, stunned by the sheer range of material that the medium offered. I put down a standing order for any new titles released and even made odd little pilgrimages to events at the Yaohan Plaza in London and the offices of Anime UK magazine.

Anime was a whole new world, utterly different from the animation I knew, but Miyazaki was its best kept secret, even though to watch anime without knowing Miyazaki is like watching kaiju without knowing Godzilla or watching spaghetti westerns without knowing Sergio Leone. Only when I finally saw one of his films did I realise just what people like Helen McCarthy, editor of Anime UK, were talking about. We all watch cartoons as a kid but there's a point in time where we discover our first Disney movie and everything that went before turns into kids stuff. Spirited Away is so far beyond anything that went before it that it stuns us and we find ourselves laughing and crying at the sheer elation of the experience. We find ourselves lost in the magic and have difficulty remembering to blink or breathe, utterly immersed in the world that has been opened up before us. And yet he is not a household name. The world, Miyazaki-san, indeed.

It's impossible not to see the wonder in every glance. Even the staircase that Chihiro needs to walk down to the boiler room turns into a Herculean task full of terror and relief. Kamaji is a six armed creature with extensible limbs and dark glasses who stokes the furnaces that feed the baths, assisted by balls of soot with arms that carry the coal, one piece at a time. The sheer otherness of the world Chihiro finds herself in is palpable. Suddenly she finds it difficult to put her foot down without treading on someone or something. These sootballs eat little stars, just one reminder that every character is both utterly memorable and utterly different from anything you're likely to have seen before. Yubaba has a huge head with even more huge hair, like a Toby jug, and a collection of huge rings like a gypsy fortune teller. She has three heads that bounce around her room like cushions. She even turns into a bird to fly away during the day.

She's a scary character for a ten year old girl, something that extends from the lead character to the audience watching. She can light a cigarette with her finger. She can pull Chihiro through a set of doors just by waving her hand. She has a huge baby that she dotes upon, and I do mean huge. She can even pull the kanji off the page after Chihiro signs a contract to work for her that constricts her name down to Sen. 'You'd make a lovely piglet,' says the sorceress, 'or a lump of coal,' and you can believe she'd make it happen too. She calls Chihiro 'a lazy, spoiled cry baby,' but the girl persists in asking for work and Yubaba has taken an oath to take on anyone who so requests, so Sen she becomes. Unfortunately, as Haku explains to her afterwards, Yubaba steals people's names and in so doing steals their memories of who they used to be. Haku doesn't remember who he was and even after only a day, Chihiro almost turns entirely into Sen.
As a worker at this bathhouse for the gods, Chihiro experiences all that life has to offer, all its shapes and sizes and flavours. She has an adventure getting down the staircase to the boiler house that first night but walks up it without even thinking the next morning. She's already more than she was, shaped by her experiences. She finds prejudice, oppression and trickery in this bathhouse, but also friendship, belonging and camaraderie. She finds strength, purpose and maturity, all the while remaining a child. She learns how to keep control over her emotions. She even makes an unlikely friend, a tall shadowy creature in a mask. Through his mute help and her own stubborn determination, she turns a disaster into a triumph and the emotions soar, though even he isn't what he might appear. He's No Face, a dangerous monster who generates gold but eats some of the employees. Again she saves the day, through a mix of daring and naïvete.

In things like this Miyazaki keeps us guessing. While it's obvious that Chihiro is the focal point of the story, not least because she's the title character in the original Japanese, Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi, which translates literally to Sen and Chihiro's Spiriting Away, there's far from just one story woven into this one picture. Initially it's Haku who plans to rescue Chihiro, given that he knows this environment and she doesn't, and so he tries to find a way to return her parents back from swine into people. Yet as Chihiro grows as a person and becomes more comfortable in her surroundings, it falls on her to rescue Haku from a number of fates. Never one to make his characters one dimensional, Miyazaki crafts even Yubaba, initially the villainess of the piece, in ways that make her more and more morally ambiguous, especially when we discover her twin sister, Zeniba, who has infiltrated her domain in the innovative guise of a flock of paper dolls.

It's watching characters like these who have little obvious connection to the viewer that we can't fail but realise the magic involved in the filmmaking. Miyazaki conjures depth out of paper dolls, draws attitude out of the movement of hair and wrings emotion out of a character with no face. How difficult must this be? Even the little soot creatures have more humanity to them than any characters I've seen Disney come up with in the last fifty years. Cutesy singing teapots do not come remotely close. Somehow Miyazaki can embed emotion into anything and everything, a highly appropriate talent given that this film is full of kami, the spirits that exist in every object, a Shinto concept that finds at once its most obvious and its subtlest cinematic interpretations here. It flows out of the backgrounds, not just the architecture of the bathhouse but the myriad creatures that populate it, even the ones who only exist to flesh out the background of a scene.

Miyazaki packed Spirited Away full of far more background detail than any of his previous films. Every shot is hugely detailed with more attention spent on the ephemeral than most animators would spend on the focal points, yet our attention is never diverted away from where it should be. There are little touches throughout this film, so many that you'll still be discovering them on your fourth or fifth time through, from a chair that lowers itself automatically to suit the person sitting in it to a lantern that hops, for its stand is a single leg. Some aren't even seen because corridors offer only shadowy hints at what lies behind their paper thin walls. There's glorious decoration everywhere, from Yubaba's lush suites to the many painted wall screens, always different and always delightful. Almost everyone and everything in this film has character except for Master Haku who for much of the film is deliberately an inscrutable cypher.

Such attention was not unnoticed. Spirited Away made an unimaginable impact in Japan, even more than Miyazaki has previously done throughout his career. It broke the record set by its predecessor, Princess Mononoke, for the number of cinema tickets sold for a domestic film, then went on to do the unthinkable: break the all-time box office record set by Titanic. It also won the equivalent of the Best Picture Oscar in Japan, and I should emphasise that that was Best Picture not Best Animated Picture. In the States, it deservedly won the Best Animated Feature Oscar in 2002, the films that comprised its competition being unworthy of mention in the same breath. The only other anime ever even nominated was Miyazaki's next film, Howl's Moving Castle, not because anime is unworthy or overlooked but because the Academy's rules require theatrical release in Los Angeles. C'mon, Spirited Away or Treasure Planet? Did they even have to discuss?

Spirited Away is also the longest film to ever be nominated over the entire run of the category, something else that speaks to the different attitudes taken in Japan to America when it comes to animation. There's no expectation in Japan that kids just won't sit still for a movie that runs over two hours, and indeed within a year of its release, one out of every six Japanese had seen this film. Personally I can't imagine anyone not becoming utterly engrossed with Spirited Away, not even if they have ADHD and can't sit still for five minutes at a time. It's the closest thing I've seen to magic on a cinema screen, the best possible entry point to a whole new world, though I'd swear to whatever deity you choose that one experience of Studio Ghibli or Hayao Miyazaki and you'll have difficulty going back to lesser material. In my humble opinion this is the greatest animated film ever made and you are depriving yourself by not seeing it.

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